Q&A: Future of robotics is open source; raises ethical questions

Willow Garage's Steve Cousins talked to me about how open source software is critical to the future of robotics. When asked about ethical issues associated with personal robotics, he admitted there isn't an easy way to answer that now.
Written by Boonsri Dickinson, Contributing Editor

LOS ANGELES -- Is there an app store in the future of robotics? That's contention of Willow
Garage CEO Steve Cousins.

During my interview with Cousins at the Compass Summit he speculated that an open-source software base could provide a boost to the robotics industry, similar to how Apple’s App Store creates more utility for iPhones and how video game attachments support particular games.

After parts are shipped in, robots are manufactured in-house at Willow Garage. The company gave away 11 robots and kept nine of its initial $400,000 PR2 robots. To date, Willow Garage has made about 50 robots.

Cousins told me Willow Garage wants to advance robotics, so anyone who works on open source software gets a 30 percent discount. Also, a sister robot to the PR2 is a one-armed version called the PR2SE, which is a bit cheaper at $285,000. When asked why the robots cost so much, Cousins compared robot manufacturing to cars -- its manufacturing process is as complicated, but isn't at scale.

"I think we are going to have an era when less expensive and less capable robots will come along," Cousins said. Creating an open source software base will help robots get here, he added.

If you're still curious about what the robots can actually do, find out how one robot is being programed to fold socks: Pieter Abbeel at the University of California at Berkeley uses a robot from Willow Garage's PR2 program to do laundry. I could certainly use a domestic robot that does that, and more.

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